Some citizen science programmes require a mix of Internet and field work

If citizen science, in which non-scientists participate to collect scientific information, is at an advanced stage in America and other countries, organisations in India have pioneered a few programmes. What is interesting is the way the programmes seem to require a mix of Internet and field-based work.

The common bird monitoring of India programme (CBMI), headquartered in Nashik, collects data on population and distribution of common birds. With its 2,000 participants and 700 datasets, it has made quite a headway. “We do not seem to be getting as good a response from the southern states or the Northeast, for example,” says Mohammed Dilawar, President of Nature Forever Society, which runs CBMI.

The Homi Bhaba Centre for Science education has a few citizen science programmes that use a mix of contact programmes and the Internet. Unlike the CBMI, which is purely web-based, they have a model in which they contact and train a few people who will in turn train others thereby multiplying the effects to cover a large number of colleges in the state.

Behaviourwatch@home is the name of one of their CS programmes, which involves watching youtube videos of a particular bird and characterising the behaviour using suitable tags, in the pilot study. This was done in collaboration with students of Acharya Narendra Dev College of Delhi University and about 13 people participated. Another programme, WeatherWatch@home is yet to be launched and requires that each participant fabricates a do-it-yourself weather station.

Madhav Gadgil’s work in developing the people’s biodiversity register is remarkable for its potential to usher traditional knowledge systems into mainstream science. Dr Madhav Gadgil has recently retired as professor, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Bangalore. In a 2009 paper published in International Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, he describes a pilot study conducted in a Gond village Mendha (Lekha) in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. The study involved catching and releasing back to the river about 1,500 fish through 146 fishing events. Along with the scientific names, the local names of the fish were also recorded. Also recorded were the names given to pools and river stretches. This really brought the community’s extensive knowledge of the ecosystem to the fore.

Another programme that involved the urban population was “Be a scientist for a day.” It was conducted by V. Shubhalaxmi, Deputy Director of Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) Conservation Education Society. The participants built up a checklist of species of plants, insects (especially moths), birds, reptiles and amphibians from BNHS’ 33-acre nature reserve. It was a contact certificate programme in which participants were mostly undergraduate students. The programme went on for two years and about 271 people participated till June 2012.

Surprisingly, corporates have also been fired up to undertake citizen science projects. HSBC partnered with IISc, Bangalore and Earthwatch, an NGO, for the climate watch programme. Its personnel, from within India and outside, were brought down to Bangalore for intensive training and participated in a survey of the Western Ghats, in batches. The programme which ran like a relay race of batches went on for three years before it came to an end.

What we take home from these studies is that in order to be sustained, these programmes require both funds and special attention. There is a need to inculcate in the urban population the importance of participating in building databases. There is also a need to consciously reach out to people to tap their potential and knowledge, like in the case of the Gonds. The need to start such projects and engage people cannot be overemphasised.